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Historical Research

Additional Information on How to Take Notes from the Register of Deaths

The Register of Deaths of Chester County consists of three oversized ledger books in poor condition. Each volume contains a list of death certificates sorted by the first letter of each person's last name. Each entry contains seventeen pieces of information such as name, age, place of birth, and so on. You will only need to enter the following thirteen items in the correct order:

FIELD NAME Type of information
1 Page number number
2 Last Name of deceased Family name
3 Other Names of deceased First & middle names or initials
4 Race "white" or "colored"
5 Sex "male" or "female"
6 Age at death number of years
7 Marital status "married" or "single"
8 Place of birth place name
9 Occupation enter description
10 Date of death year/month/day
11 Place of death place name in Chester County
12 Cause of death enter description
13 Duration of last illness various text

Note that the register entries were written by hand, so you need to be prepared to decipher 19th century handwriting. If you find something that you cannot read, first write down any letters that you can make out, and then look for other words on the page that contain any of the letters that you cannot decipher. Use questions marks or blanks for any undecipherable letters that remain, and when you get home, use the following lists to look for typical causes of death, place names and occupations.

As you type your data into the computer, you need to use separators consistently. Place a comma after each field, leave blank items empty and hit [RETURN] or [ENTER] at the end of each person's information. For example, a single entry might look like this:

125, Jones, James, colored, male, 64, married, Lower Oxford, laborer, 1899/10/20, Oxford, blood poisoning, 42

For an entry where the deceased's occupation and cause of death were unknown, leave a blank space between the commas. For example:

219, Merkle, William, white, male, 56, married, Downingtown, , 1896/05/01, Kennett Square, , 2

ACCURACY IS CRITICAL, especially when spelling things that your spell-checker cannot recognize like dates, proper names, place names and the names of diseases. Also make sure that you have exactly twelve commas separating thirteen "fields" of information for each person's entry, and that ended each line of data with a [ENTER] ?

Notice that dates are recorded in an unusual fashion with the year followed by the month and the day. This allows us to use the computer to sort our entries easily into chronological order. Use four digits for the year, two digits for the month and two digits for the day, and in the event that a data item is missing, replace it with two question marks as in the following examples:

Date in the ROD Date in your notes
1-30-1899 1899/01/30
11 May 1903 1903/05/11
Oct. 12, 1902 1902/10/12
all other formats YYYY/MM/DD
1-1901 1901/01/??
May 5 (no year) ????/05/05

After you have made handwritten notes, the next step is to type them into the computer. The computer can help you reduce the amount of work by using [FIND-AND-REPLACE] to expand abbreviations. For instance, I used abbreviations for words that appeared often like "male" (m), "female" (f), "married" (h for "hitched" so I won't get it mixed up with "m" for "married"), "single" (s) and "white" (w). I abbreviated the word "year" as "yr." and "years" as "yrs." I also made up my own abbreviations for place names, like "loxx" for "Lower Oxford" and "enotx" for "East Nottingham."

For example, some of my raw data looked like this:

225, Reyburn, Ruby M., w, f, 44, s, , 1899/06/24, enotx, consumption, 4mo.

225, Ross, John W., w, m, 55, h, farmer, 1899/09/03, loxx, aneurism, 7mo.

225, Renolds, Elizabeth, w, f, 68, widow, housekeeper, 1899/10/28, loxx, cancer of stomach, 3mo.

225, Rinehart, Joshua, w, m, 86, h, farmer, 1899/06/08, East Coventry, dropsy, 3mo.

225, Ross, Benjamin, c, m, 65, h, mason, 1899/08/03, Berwyn, consumption, 2yrs.

REMEMBER to make sure that your abbreviations could not possibly show up in any of your data, or else when you expand your abbreviation, you'll ruin accurate data as well. For instance, if you used "ex" to abbreviate Exton, then unless you are careful, when you expand it you'll turn "Rex" into "RExton" and "Mexico" into "MExtonico."

How to handle some unusual data items: Since the data in the Register of Deaths was entered by many different people over a period of years, it is not uniform. In order to allow our computer to handle it, we must take a few steps to make the data uniform.

  1. Do not include commas that appear in your data; only use commas to separate the fields in your data. If a comma appears in the Register of Deaths, replace it with a semi-colon or hyphen when you type the data into the computer.
  2. When you find a complex place name that includes both the name of the street and the name of the town, write the name of the town first, and then put the name of the street in parentheses. For instance, write "Rosedale Avenue, West Chester" as "West Chester (Rosedale Avenue)." Not only does that eliminate the comma, it allows us to sort all of the entries by place name and easily find all the West Chester locations.
  3. Do not change spellings or make corrections in the data. For instance, I found a boy who died at age 10, but was listed as a railroad worker. It was obvious to me that the person on the line below was actually the railroad worker, but I didn't change it. For our work to be of use to the Chester County Archives, it should copy the original death register as closely as possible. Later, after we have assembled all of the data, we will "repair" it for our own use.
Correcting Notes from the Register of Death

Once you have completed your data entry, you are ready to "clean up" your data so that it is ready to turn in. Expand all of your abbreviations, make sure you have the correct page number at the beginning of each entry, and verify that there are exactly thirteen fields of data for each entry.

To expand each abbreviation, use [FIND-AND-REPLACE] to replace each of your abbreviations with the full word or phrase. For instance, when I expand my abbreviations, I include the beginning and ending spaces and all commas, so that I don't accidentally change someone's middle initial to a word. [Note: You are free to use different abbreviations from the ones that I use, as long as they don't introduce any errors into your notes when you expand them.]

, w, , white,
chesco Chester County
mo. months
, pneu , pneumonia
, coho , Chester County Home
, cohs , Chester County Hospital
, px , Phoenixville
, dt , Downingtown

It is a very good idea to scan through your document after each substitution and, if it looks like everything turned out as expected, save it under a new name before making the next substitution. That way, if one of your substitutions needs to be reversed, you can reload the last version of your file and resume from there.

If you didn't add page numbers when you entered your notes, the process is simple. Use [FIND-AND-REPLACE] to replace the [ENTER] at the end of each line of data with [ENTER] followed by "x, " where x is the correct page number.

You can verify that each line contains the correct number of commas between data fields by counting them, but there is a quicker and more accurate way to do so. Many programs allow you to create something called a macro that makes record your keystrokes or mouse-clicks and then allows you to repeat them by typing only one or two keys. For example, I could write a macro to type the word "dysentery" and replace the nine keystrokes necessary to type it out with a single keystroke needed to run the macro. Normally, it's not worth using a macro to type a single word because if you make up a macro for every long word, you will have trouble remembering which macro does what. (Use abbreviations and FIND-AND-REPLACE instead.)

To verify that each entry has thirteen fields, put your cursor after the first comma in the first line, write a macro that types ** ( [BOLD-ON ASTERISK ASTERISK BOLD-OFF] ) then searches for a comma eleven more times. If you have the correct number of commas in your first line, this macro should leave the cursor right after the first comma in the next line. Run the macro until it fails to end with the cursor in the right place and then look at the previous line to find the problem.

After running your macro, the results should look something like this:

35, ** Cahill, Margaret, white, female, 81, married, Ireland, , 1907/01/26, Exton, old age,
35, ** Cairns, David W., white, male, 75, married, , farmer, 1907/03/03, near Honey Brooke, heart failure, 1 month
35, ** Cane, William, colored, male, 44, married, Chester County, hostler, 1906/06/02, West Chester, neuralgia heart, 1
35, ** Care, George, white, male, 75, single, Warwick PA, laborer, 1906/11/07, South Coventry PA, , 6 months
36, ** Care, Margaret, white, female, 68, single, Chester Springs, 1907/03/29, St. Peters, cancer, 9 weeks
35, Carey, ** Harry R., white, male, 10, single, West Chester, , 1906/06/02, West Chester (South Connellton), struck by lighning, instant
35, Carey, ** John, white, male, 42, married, West Chester, , 1906/06/02, West Chester (South Connellton), struck by lightning, instant
35, Carr, ** Amanda, white, female, 63, married, West Vincent PA, , 1907/04/28, West Vincent, lung trouble, 2 weeks

Since each line is supposed to have the same number of commas, the ** should appear at the same place in every line. Notice that in the above example, the ** is out of place in the entry for Harry R. Carey. In the previous entry (for Margaret Care), there is no field for "profession" between place-of-birth and date-of-death. In other words, a comma is missing in front of the dtae-of-death.

Using this macro, you can find errors quickly and correct them or else mark them so that you can recheck your data then when you return to the Chester County Archives. After you have gone through the entire file, go back to the beginning and use FIND-AND-REPLACE to remove all of the ** 's.

You will be left with a note file consisting of lines that each contain exactly thirteen data fields, separated by twelve commas. All of your abbreviations will be written out in full, and each line will begin with a page number. Your data will be ready to copy, manipulate, or convert into a spreadsheet.

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